The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu: And Their Race to Save the World's Most Precious Manuscripts

by Joshua Hammer

Hardcover, 2016




New York : Simon & Schuster, 2016.


In the 1980s, a young adventurer and collector for a government library, Abdel Kader Haidara, journeyed across the Sahara Desert and along the Niger River, tracking down and salvaging tens of thousands of ancient Islamic and secular manuscripts that had fallen into obscurity. The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu tells the incredible story of how Haidara, a mild-mannered archivist and historian from the legendary city of Timbuktu, later became one of the world's greatest and most brazen smugglers. In 2012, thousands of Al Qaeda militants from northwest Africa seized control of most of Mali, including Timbuktu. They imposed Sharia law, chopped off the hands of accused thieves, stoned to death unmarried couples, and threatened to destroy the great manuscripts. As the militants tightened their control over Timbuktu, Haidara organized a dangerous operation to sneak all 350,000 volumes out of the city to the safety of southern Mali. Over the past twenty years, journalist Joshua Hammer visited Timbuktu numerous times and is uniquely qualified to tell the story of Haidara's heroic and ultimately successful effort to outwit Al Qaeda and preserve Mali's - and the world's - literary patrimony. Hammer explores the city's manuscript heritage and offers never-before-reported details about the militants' march into northwest Africa. But above all, The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu is an inspiring account of the victory of art and literature over extremism.… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member Gwendydd
I found the first few chapters of this book to be really fascinating. Those chapters focus on Timbuktu in the medieval and early modern eras, when it was a center of Islamic learning, full of scholars and libraries, and producing impressive quantities of manuscripts on every topic imaginable. Then the book describes how war and religious reform drove the libraries into hiding - hundreds of thousands of manuscripts have been hidden in peoples' homes for centuries. One man started collecting those manuscripts into libraries, consolidating them and preserving them.

So far, so good.... but then, Hammer starts talking about war. I realized that Hammer is a war correspondent - his passion is reporting on war and power struggles and troop movements. Once he started covering the rise of Islamic fundamentalist terrorist cells in Mali, and their eventual conquest of Timbuktu, he stopped talking about books and libraries at all. In fact, probably about half of the book is just about war, and includes no mention of librarians. Then there are a few chapters at the end where manuscripts are mentioned again, almost as an afterthought, and with annoyingly little detail. He does tell the story of how the manuscripts were smuggled out of Mali, but leaves open more questions than he answers.

If this book had been written by a librarian or a manuscript scholar, it would have been really really good. Or if it had been advertised as the story of the war in Mali, it would have been just fine. But it starts out as a fascinating story about manuscripts and the Islamic contribution to world scholarship, and then it just becomes a war story.
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LibraryThing member cbl_tn
Timbuktu has long been used in slang to refer to somewhere as far away as it's possible to be from civilization. Because of that usage, it's easy to assume that there is not and never has been anything in Timbuktu that is worth the effort of getting there. That assumption is wrong. Timbuktu was once a center of Islamic scholarship, and it has a tangible legacy in the form of thousands of Arabic manuscripts. Most of these manuscripts have been in private hands for hundreds of years, passed down through families. Hammer tells the story of one heir to his family's manuscripts, Abdel Kader Haidara, and his dedication to Mali's literary heritage.

Haidara was still in his teens when his father died and he became the custodian of his family's manuscripts. He was soon approached by the director of a government manuscript collection in Timbuktu, and he ended up working for this library for more than a decade. He learned about manuscripts and their preservation, and he built a network of contacts among the families who owned manuscripts. He eventually turned his attention to his own collection, and he was successful in securing grants from international donors to restore and preserve the manuscripts.

When an Islamic jihadist group seized control of northern Mali, including Timbuktu, Haidara realized that his life's work was in danger. He devised a plan to smuggle the manuscripts out of Timbuktu and into government-controlled territory. It's probably obvious that the operation was successful, or there wouldn't be a book about it. But what did it involve, and how successful was it? You'll have to read the book to find out!

Hammer includes a lot of background information on the jihadists and their operations. The background material comprises nearly half of the book. It's a complex tale, yet it's important context for the rescue of the manuscripts. Readers need to know what these manuscripts were rescued from. The background details also demonstrate that the jihadist insurgency in Mali wasn't an isolated event. It's connected to terrorist organizations and networks that include Al Qaeda and ISIS.

World music fans may be interested in the connections to Tuareg music and the Festival in the Desert. If you're familiar with Tinariwen, Amanar, or Khaira Arby, this book may be for you.
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LibraryThing member LisCarey
Timbuktu is a city with a storied history, and one lesser-known piece of that history is that twice during the Middle Ages it was the center of a flowering of education and scholarship. In the 1980s, a young man named Abdel Kader Haidara, a collector for a government library, traveled the Sahara Desert and the Niger River, collecting ancient Arabic manuscripts, both religious and secular, rescuing them from decay and destruction, and bringing them back for preservation. This part of the story include some amazing adventures in itself. But there's more.

Haidara over the years matured into a mild-mannered archivist and historian, along with marrying and raising a family. Then in 2012, Al Qaeda militants seized control of Mali, including Timbuktu, and the marvelous collection and the scholarship around it was in danger of being destroyed.

At first Al Qaeda leaders were outwardly respectful of the collection and its value, but as their grip tightened, that didn't last. Priceless manuscripts representing an important part of Mali and the world's literary heritage, was in danger of being destroyed.

Haidara, thirty years after his original adventures, organized a massive smuggling operation, to get that amazing collection of priceless manuscripts out of the country, right under the noses of the Al Qaeda occupiers. No short review can capture how thrilling this story is, or how well Hammer recounts it. Haidara and his crew of scholarly librarians risked their lives and smuggled crates of manuscripts downriver to safety at risk of horrible punishments Al Qaeda imposed on those who violated their version of Sharia law. It's an exciting, amazing, thrilling story, and an exceptional example of the devotion of dedicated librarians to preservation of and access to knowledge.

Highly recommended.

I bought this book.
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LibraryThing member cathyskye
With its title, I just had to read this book, especially since I'd already read about Timbuktu's ancient and storied history and its devotion to writing and knowledge. The sections about Timbuktu's history, of Abdel Kader Haidara's canny and careful forays into the desert, and of his smuggling them away from the very real threat of destruction are absolutely wonderful. I couldn't get enough of reading about a society that measured wealth in terms of books and knowledge, or about a man who was willing to spend his life gathering together and restoring such treasures.

Although completely necessary to the book, I did find that it bogged down in the politics. Who did what to whom. Who should've done this. Why this group moved here. It was eye-crossing after a while, but I soldiered through so I could thoroughly appreciate what Haidara and other people did.

Not many people would risk their lives to save a library, no matter how precious it was. We should all be thankful that men and women like Abdel Kader Haidara exist, and I for one am thankful that Joshua Hammer told their story.
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LibraryThing member MickyFine
In this work of narrative non-fiction, Hammer recounts the conflict in Mali when Al Qaeda militants attempted to take over the country and the tale of the librarians and archivists of Timbuktu who worked quietly and in secret to transport the thousands of precious manuscripts in the city to relative safety away from the conflict. Hammer's evocative prose works well for this journalistic style non-fiction exploration of Timbuktu's history, the initial efforts to collect the historic manuscripts that date back hundreds of years, as well as the more recent conflict and the efforts of the librarians to evacuate the manuscripts to prevent their destruction by Al Qaeda forces. Whether your interest is in book history and the efforts some truly bad-ass librarians or in the conflict itself, the book is highly informative and extremely readable. My only quibble is that the map included inside the cover is only of Mali and doesn't include the larger region. Also, depending on your non-fiction preferences, while there are end notes citing sources there is no numbering in-text which may bother some readers.… (more)
LibraryThing member MichaelC.Oliveira
Being an archivist, I was more interested in the manuscripts and the technology. For me, I felt the book dwelled too much on the Al Qaeda militants, however this did not make the book less interesting.
LibraryThing member DrLed
Synopsis: This is the true story of the protection of ancient African documents from Al Qaeda. Haidara begins the Mali collection by going to collectors and asking them to donate their manuscripts to the national library. He ends by saving the largest percentage from destruction.
Review: The title is misleading in that it appears to be an adventure novel. It's really a well written history of happenings in and around Timbuktu. I found large sections of the book ponderous despite the well written prose.… (more)
LibraryThing member dono421846
Here's how I imagine this book came about: Hammer wrote a book about the fundamentalist insurgencies in Mali, and the publisher suggested that in the midst of all that technical military and political history he play up the human interest angle attached to the manuscripts so it will appeal to a broader audience.

I doubt that's how it happened, but that is how it reads. The military sections are intricate and detailed, full of minutiae. We learn the menus of planning sessions and all manner of information. The tale of the manuscripts comes off as comparatively superficial. It's not, really, but Hammer is so invested in the former, showing that there is where his true interest is, that the other pales. Still, though, it is good to have, in this age that so often denies that books have any worth, an account of a life devoted to the physical object of the text even at the risk of life.… (more)
LibraryThing member justagirlwithabook
I’m a grad student working towards a master’s in library and information science, so I was really jazzed to read this book. I have a hard time reading through nonfiction and a fast clip (unlike fiction), so I usually listen to my nonfiction choices on audio. I listened to this one on audio and I don’t think I would’ve been able to finish it otherwise.

The overall description of the book on goodreads led me to believe I’d be reading all about the daring escapades of these librarians in Timbuktu and get to know them all individually as well. Instead, while there is an underlying plot that follows one specific “librarian” and his efforts to preserve the family heirloom manuscripts of the people in Timbuktu, the book’s overlying plot really follows the rise and fall of Al-Qaeda and the jihadist movement in the area (most specifically Timbuktu but the greater area of Mali).

The history and events there are important for understanding the heroic actions taken by those who wished to preserve the precious manuscripts of their people, but it definitely ended up taking center stage rather than the librarians themselves (for the most part). That history and storyline of those events are all quiet well done, but for me it took a lot of effort to remain focused during these times and to stick with the book.

For those who want to know more about these sorts of events and places like Mali that have battled Al-Qaeda for so long, I think this would be a great book to pick up. It is well done in that regard. For book nerds and librarians who expected a book mostly about books and bookish things, this one might not be the one for you.
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LibraryThing member akblanchard
Whoever gave Joshua Hammer's book the title The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu deserves an A+ for marketing savvy but a C- for accuracy. A more fitting, albeit less catchy, title might have been "The Rise and Fall of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and the Consequences for Mali".

In 2012, manuscript collector, archivist and adventurer (I think it is misleading to call him a librarian) Abdel Kader Haidara launched a daring plan to save thousands of historic Islamic documents from destruction by the fundamentalist jihadis of AQIM, who occupied Tumbuktu at the time. These radical Islamists posed a threat to the manuscripts because they hated the tolerant version of Islam presented in them. Haidara's plan to smuggle the codices to safety was executed not by librarians but by the teenage sons and nephews of librarians, including Haidara's own nephew and chief assistant Mohammad Touré. These young men (and Haidara himself, who coordinated the massive effort) are the real "bad-asses".

Much of the narrative is taken up by background information about Timbuktu, Mali, and AQIM. This information is well-presented, but I kept wanting the narrative to get back to plot to save the manuscripts.

Recommended for those who listen to the radio program "The World" on NPR.
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LibraryThing member seasidereader
This book frustrated me for the following reasons:
1. The author is a journalist and contributing editor; the publisher is high class. And yet, the book cries out for maps, illustrations, glossary, timelines, and cohesion. There are exactly two visuals, one on each endpaper. One is a map of Mali - missing the context of its geographic location in Africa - the other an unidentified "manuscript page." What a disappointment.
2. Because the action shifts back and forth in time,and the cast of characters is extensive, we lose track of dates and who's who.
3. The story promised by the title is really not the core of the book; rather it is instability of the region fueled by jihadist warfare.
This tale of the manuscripts and the dedicated people who saved them is worth reading, but the book could have been so much better.
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LibraryThing member wagner.sarah35
I'm a librarian, so of course I had to pick up a book with this title! And it certainly warmed my heart to read about the efforts to save medieval manuscripts from terrorists - just as much as I found it chilling to read about Al Qaeda setting aflame ancient texts. In addition, this book does an excellent job of detailing terrorism and what it means to the people living under its yoke in a way that news reports cannot. I'd highly recommend this to other librarians (of course!) and to anyone who wants to know what it would be like to live in a city taken over by a terrorist group.… (more)
LibraryThing member phoenixcomet
What happens when Al Quada comes to town? Nothing good. Abdel Kader Haidara, a mild-mannered, but driven librarian spent years traveling Africa, particularly Mali and it's regions to retrieve ancient illuminated manuscripts from destruction from nature. Having collected 377,000 manuscripts, housed in 45 different libraries Haidara coordinates an amazing "save them from destruction" effort to get these volumes out of Timbuktu and to the south in Mali before Al Quada destroys them. An excellent volume that highlights how Al Quaeda came to power in Timbuktu and how the area was eventually liberated. What happens next? Only time will tell.… (more)
LibraryThing member witchyrichy
This would be a great plot for an Indiana Jones movie if the stakes of losing hadn't been so high. The book provides a nakedly horific view of the jihadists and their disregard for human life and history. But I felt like there were places when the focus on allies and fighting went too far away from the story of saving manuscripts and other pieces of antiquities. I might have preferred to hear about other preservation efforts across the region. That being said, I learned a lot about how and why these extremists are taking over.… (more)
LibraryThing member Meredy
This fascinating account of how some priceless ancient manuscripts were gathered and smuggled out of the destructive path of Islamic jihadists turns out to be more of a history of the extremists and how closely tied their movement is to the land itself--the vast desert spaces of Africa that many of us never think about at all.… (more)
LibraryThing member Sheila1957
The title is a little misleading. While this does deal with the collection of the ancient manuscripts hidden in and around Timbuktu and through Mali, it deals more with the cultural and social history of Timbuktu as well as current events.

The story of the manuscripts is interesting--how they were gotten, preserved, hidden from the jihadists, removed from Timbuktu, and saved. The cultural history of the area and the manuscripts was more interesting. I learned a lot. The current history of the area was extremely interesting. This book opened my eyes to so much. This is only a drop of what I don't know. It makes me want to read more about African history, colonialism in Africa, the French Foreign Legion, whatever more whets my appetite to learn.… (more)
LibraryThing member arubabookwoman
Abdel Kader Haidara collected many ancient and priceless Arabic manuscripts that had been passed down in families for generations throughout the Saharan desert, and placed them in a historic library in the fabled town of Timbuktu in the hope of preserving them for posterity. When an fundamentalist Islamist terrorist group affiliated with al Qaeda showed up on Timbuktu's doorstep, the 350,000 or so manuscripts were threatened with destruction. This book is the fascinating and exciting story of how Abdel and his friends, family and colleagues smuggled all of the manuscripts to safety out of Timbuktu, the story of a meek librarian who becomes a world-class smuggler, if you will.

The book combines a thriller/adventure story with the story of the rise of al Qaeda in Africa. I highly recommend it.

3 stars
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LibraryThing member jetangen4571
I missed this book on a Goodreads Giveaway, but I caught up with it as Whispersync on the cheap courtesy of BookGorilla. It combines histories of North Africa (especially Mali), Islam, religious scrolls and the people who have been protecting them, and so much more. The title's catchy, but it ought to be Bad-a$$ Archivists, I think. One man made it his life's work to gather and protect scrolls from everywhere he could, despite extremists and other crazies. It is a very involved and often tense tale, but also written with a detail and sensitivity that makes it riveting. There is much to be learned here, and we all hope for positive change.
Paul Boehmer is a fine audio performer and brings so much to life with his talents.
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LibraryThing member weisser4
I received this as a gift and was very excited to read it. Three book focused more on mid-east politics. It was nearly as entertaining as reading the"begats" in the Bible. Good info but not wheat I was looking to read based on the book's description.
LibraryThing member AJBraithwaite
An interesting read covering the recent and ancient history of Timbuktu and Mali, none of which I had been aware of before. The tradition of keeping manuscripts in homes rather than in large libraries was fascinating, as was the history of conflict and destruction which made this tradition sensible. It was intriguing to see how the more recent trend to centralise the location of texts in libraries was reversed again in the face of the risk of loss of manuscript materials to extremists in modern times.

I found the author's ego a little intrusive at times, but it was worth reading to find out more about this part of Africa and its rich manuscript traditions.
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LibraryThing member ShawIslandLibrary
This is a very inspiring story for those who love books, and an interesting way to learn about sub-Saharan, West African history and its relevance to current geopolitical/religious conflicts. To see the undercurrent of intellectual treasure and history that the manuscripts at the center of this tale represent adds a sense of the complex cultural identities playing out in the African communities besieged by Al Qaeda and Boko Haram -- a part of the story we rarely hear about. (Brian)… (more)
LibraryThing member nicole_a_davis
I really wanted to like this book. I'm an archivist and I'm interested in world cultures so i feel like I'm the perfect target audience for this. But the author took an interesting story and just made it dry and dull. He didn't show the characters of the people very well and spent most of his time just chronicling wars instead of focusing on the manuscripts and the librarians. In the hands of a more gifted author, this could have been great, but unfortunately this writer took all the life out of the story.… (more)
LibraryThing member nadineeg
Almost one man's determination to rescue and preserve the ancient manuscripts secreted in and around the ancient Islamic University city of Timbuktu. Brilliant exposition of the challenges which had to be overcome and the utter insanity of fanatics.
LibraryThing member Grace.Van.Moer
Moderately interesting, but got bogged down in the details and did not finish.
LibraryThing member Sandydog1
A 5-star thriller, but in need of a bit more editing. And, so many unsettling questions are left unanswered by the end of the epilogue. Will these books ever get scanned? That was a close call, will they ever truly get saved? The descriptions and history of the fighting and warfare were well done. I just wish there was more about the content and future preservation of these ancient desert manuscripts.… (more)



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